BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 2015
The Hidden Muscle Behind Behavior
Emotions lie beneath the surface, often unnoticed while they covertly hijack our motivation and push action.
Emotions! Bubbling, prodding and disrupting as they sometimes are, often fail to penetrate consciousness. But even unrecognized emotions influence behavior. Under the cover of darkness, emotions twist and turn, moving the body, responding to emotional calls for action. Emotions—chemical changes in biological systems—sometimes insufficiently disrupting to surface in consciousness. The emotions lurking in the unseen world influence behavior by creating inclinations towards action.
Our minds are limited. Our Bodies function—breathing, pumping blood, and metabolizing—without the aid of conscious direction. Our ancestors functioned and survived before the evolutionary arrival of consciousness. Consciousness possesses limited resources, focusing on the most salient experiences, emotional blasts of fear, anger, happiness or sorrow. Even well practiced mindfulness misses much; mindfulness is being aware of more. Unseen bodily changes continue to direct behaviors; we often act first and only then cognitively justify the action in words that our slower conscious mind can grasp.
When life is painful (lost love, shame, survival struggles), we soothingly use words to proclaim victimhood, dodging responsibility. We feel some vindication for the disappointments, escaping the regret of acknowledging that our stupid choice contributed to the failure. Yet, often the driving force moving the action that led to the disappointment is unseen emotions. As Spinoza puts it, “Men believe themselves free because they are conscious of their own actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined…”
We Have Power to Direct our Lives
We’re not puppets to rivers of emotions motivating action without the moderation of thought—at least we don’t have to be. We are endowed with powers of will that can invoke changes. Our powerful cortex soaks up memories, creates a web of associations, and establishes new wisdom from each new exposure. We invite healthier futures by magnifying areas of control. Our destinies are not determined by unmanageable forces. The process proceeding action has complex causes; but reasoned thought exists and participates within the complexity.
Hidden motivations dilute the purity of choices; cloaked biases lurk beneath conscious recognition influencing behaviors. We must accept these as givens of the human mind and account for their presence.
"We are endowed with powers of will that can invoke changes. Our powerful cortex soaks up memories, creates a web of associations, and establishes new wisdom from each new exposure. We invite healthier futures by magnifying areas of control."
Hidden motivations may never be exposed to rational thought, stuck in the crevices of the forgotten past. We are enlightened by occasional glances but successfully unearthing all bias and motivation is impossible. Some biological processes will always function independent of consciousness. Unconscious functions smoothly interact with the outside world.
Effective living requires acceptance of the reality of our biological systems—not every biological function is ideal. We live within biological trade-offs that bless and curse our existence. Our wonderful brains have a few hitches. Some hitches hinder conscious goal achievement. When life fails to meet expectations, it’s not necessarily the fault of a cruel world—our own action may be the cause. The troubles that repeatedly beset us may be just consequences. Examining personal behaviors as possible causes, rather than complaining about triggering events and terrible others, often enlightens a path that will resolve the vexing pain.
Even through great enlightenments, our bodies will continue to operate on auto-pilot, freeing resources for cognitive attention in other areas of survival. Biology, culture and experience prepare us for success--sometimes. But when dreams go off course—as they often will—we can blame the wayward winds of misunderstand complexity, or adjust our vessels sails, realigning life with our desired intentions.
Practices in meditation and reflection bring deeper awareness. Examining past reactions unearths hidden beliefs and misguided biases that provoke misaligned emotions. These small practices of mindfulness and reflection identify unconscious processes holding us hostage. With consistency, patience, and skill, we learn better alternatives, identify goal destroying behaviors and adjust. In the calmness of the mind, and patience of routine inspection, we learn much more than the obvious, seeing pieces previously hidden. It is here, in the light of knowledge, that rational thought can join forces and influence change.
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